Sarah DeLappe calls the world of The Wolves “a planet of teenage girls,” which feels pretty accurate. The play could almost be set in some sort of remote biosphere: airless, isolated, and claustrophobically intimate, with—for all but one scene—no one on it but the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old members of a girls’ winter indoor soccer team. All of the scenes take place during pre-game practices, as the players both warm and pump themselves up, whilst constantly testing the parameters of their friendships and relative statuses in the group and world. They’re almost as competitive in casual conversation as they are on the field; each one is a private hothouse of pressure and ambition and anguish and rage. This sport is the center of their lives (unlike some of their spring and fall teammates, who play other sports or even, *shock horror* join the school play during the winter season) and this group has been playing together as long as they can remember, even though they don’t go to the same school. With the exception, that is, of one new arrival who’s both an outsider and a mystery, homeschooled and far too good to be as new to the sport as she claims.
DeLappe smartly gives us insights into the players’ personal struggles without ever veering into the over-obvious confessional. Battles with parents, boyfriends, sexuality and sex; injuries, eating disorders and anxiety; and just the day-to-day hurdles of moving through the world as a teenage girl all rise to the surface. They taunt one another’s ignorance and build one another’s strength, often in the same breath. The playwright has a terrific ear not just for the rhythms of adolescent girls’ speech, but for the way they dart between conversations, hungering to be a part of every scrap of social exchange going on around them. The tight structure of the play sneaks up on you. Its constant undercurrents and echoed side conversations or half-heard asides turn out to convey essential nuggets of information that bring real emotional payoffs.
The girls, identified only by their uniform numbers even among themselves, feel at first like one big chaotic cluster of jangly energy. It seems like the play is going to perhaps display some sort of hyper-verbal hive mind. But the group quickly begins to show its facets and the characters emerge in little bursts and tangles of conversation: leaders and sidekicks, impassioned overachievers and dreamy space cadets; dyads and triangles of closer friendships; different secrets they’re keeping. #7 (Brenna Coates) and #14 (Samia Finnerty) are two of the tightest friends and the strongest players. #7 is a foul-mouthed risk-taker, a leader for her take-no-prisoners attitude as much as her considerable athletic talents, and #14 worldlier and shyer at once. #25 (Lauren Patten), the captain and a substitute for their incompetent coach, is a slogger without the gifts of some of her teammates, but she’s unswervingly committed to the team; #13 (Jenna Dioguardi) is a pothead and would probably be a slacker without her competitive streak. #11 (Susannah Perkins) is a bit of an intellectual showoff; #8 (Midori Francis) blurts out every thought that flickers across her mind; and #2 (Sarah Mezzanotte) is achingly sheltered and more than a little naive. (At times, it feels like DeLappe is working a little too hard to be even-handed with her characters, to give each one a crisis and a moment at centre stage, but that’s also useful in seeing them as individuals.)
The love among these girls is as palpable as the competition and the terror—and the obstacles for anyone who wants to change her role in this sticky, incredibly strong structure. When the new kid, #46 (Tedra Millan) wants to make her way into the group, she meets impenetrable facade after impenetrable facade. Admittedly, she’s a little awkward, but she’s also getting stonewalled. When #14 wants to contradict #7, she has to struggle to step outside her role in the group. When #25 wants to befriend a new girl at school (with distinct romantic overtones), she can barely stand to admit it to the teammates.
Director Lila Neugebauer gives the piece its strong physicality; a competitive soccer player in her youth, she knows how to make the crucial athletic aspects of the piece feel real. All of the actors are intensely physically grounded. Neugebauer’s given them all the body awareness of athletes and there’s even a reasonable amount of actual ball-handling being done onstage. (Beth Lake and Stowe Nelson’s sound design, with its overheard snippets of game action, also contributes to the athletic realism. One silent scene, where the anxiety-plagued goalie (Lizzy Jutila), practicing by herself, warms up into first a physical and then an emotional frenzy, carries one of the piece’s strongest emotional charges. Neugebauer also gets uniformly strong work out of the ensemble, particularly the actors playing the more awkward characters: Tedra Millan (#46), with her flashes of joy when she starts to feel like part of the group; Lauren Patten (#25) as she softens around the edges; the pathos of Sarah Mezzanotte’s (#2) earnestness.
It’s refreshing to see a story about a group of adolescents that’s not a “hero’s journey,” not explicitly a “coming-of-age” story. Experiences depicted here will, of course, mark some of them for life, both with joy and with sorrow, but there’s no attempt to create resolution or to claim that either success or tragedy brings wisdom alongside it. I do find myself wishing DeLappe had found a way to build the story out without creating a crisis that strikes the tight community—but that crisis also becomes the only time a character from the outside world (one of the moms, played by Mia Barron) intrudes into the play, which is strikingly affective.
Adolescence can be brutal, and while DeLappe never tries to hide that truth, she also gives her characters considerable joys in one another, in their own athleticism, in their discoveries about the world. I would never want to go back and live on teenage girl planet again, but The Wolves makes it well worth spending an evening there.